Put down your PDC and Step Away

Guest Author: Adam Hockman, M.A.
Adam Hockman is the Chief Learning Architect at ABA Technologies. He helps clients build learning systems that enhance the capabilities and achievements of staff to impact strategic outcomes positively. Adam has worked in corporate learning, autism services, healthcare, education, and the performing arts.
Before ABA Tech, Adam worked as a research associate to Dr. Francis Mechner at The Mechner Foundation. He applies behavioral and learning science to working with classical musicians on practice, performance, and career development skills and has taught on the faculty of the Heifetz International Music Institute.

In 2023, Adam initiated Wider Reach, a writing incubator for behavior analysts interested in publishing their work outside of the behavior analysis community. The project is generously funded by the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis. Adam frequently writes and speaks about learning science, instructional design, and measurement.
He received his undergraduate and graduate training in communication sciences and disorders at Utah State University, behavior analysis and instructional design at the Florida Institute of Technology, and health professions education/simulation operations at MGH Institute of Health Professions. Adam was named a member of the Learning Guild’s Thirty Under 30 cohort of learning leaders. He is an advisor to the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies and former co-VP of marketing and editor of Standard Celeration Society.

Adam reminds us to look before we listen, to listen before we speak—to see what behavior is doing because of its surrounding environment. He reminds us to see each organization and its people as a fresh canvas of behavior and consequences interacting rather than approach our work as “same old, same old” patterns we assume we know so well. Our fluency in applying tools across varied organizations may sometimes keep us from seeing what is needed. Adam takes a functional approach to organizational work, not a structural one, and he reminds us to do the same.

Put Down the PDC and Step Away
Guest Author: Adam Hockman

The Performance Diagnostic Checklist (PDC) has been a favorite tool of behavior analysts for years. Originally developed by John Austin, and later adapted for safety and human service settings, the PDC aids an observer in understanding a workplace performance problem and selecting an intervention to address it. To develop the PDC, Austin interviewed successful organizational behavior management (OBM) practitioners about their approach for addressing performance problems. Insights from those interviews led to the tool we use today. (Recent update.)

In autism service delivery, clinicians with little to no experience in OBM rely on the PDC as a one-stop tool for informing their observations and analysis of a performance problem. Then it shapes their selection of a research-validated intervention. But the PDC is not the be-all or end-all some people would like it to be.

As Tom Gilbert and Carl Binder championed, employee performance is meant to produce outputs or accomplishments that are useful to the organization. The accomplishments of an organization’s people are what improve business results, client outcomes, and other important objectives. When you rely on the PDC as your first step to address performance problems, you risk spending time developing an intervention to improve behavior that might have no impact on the organization. It narrows your attention to performance, leaving out other critical elements that influence the performance: mission, vision, values, brand, products, services, systems, processes, technology, and accomplishments.

Before leaning on the PDC to address a behavioral problem, pause and understand how the performance you believe needs fixing fits in with the broader context of the organization’s or company’s DNA. Behavioral systems analysis, consumer behavior, and behavioral leadership are OBM applications that tackle some of these critical elements. But fields outside of behavior analysis have also developed methods for identifying organizational and performance problems, causes, and solutions. Let’s take a look at a few of these disciplines, what they focus on, and how you can learn more about them.

Human-Centered Design
Human-centered design (HCD) is a framework to understand the needs, constraints, contexts, behaviors, and wants of a consumer related to a product or service (Invision, n.d.). HCD has phases: discover, define, ideate, prototype, and test. In each phase, the designer concentrates on an aspect of the person and their environment. It works collaboratively with stakeholders entrenched in the problem throughout discovery and analysis. HCD, just as it sounds, puts people before systems or processes. Human factors influence everything else. Some resources to study:

● Luma Institute: their methods and book, Innovating for People
● IDEO U: A mix of human-centered design and design thinking resources

User Experience Design
User experience (UX) design is also concerned with people and addressing their problems. But UX targets a person’s experience with a specific product—that product’s design and how it works in the hands of the user. The goal of UX is to create an intuitive, easy-to-use product or service to help the user solve their problem. A course and two books on the topic:

● User Experience (UX) Design certificate program through Google: Coursera
● Book: Laws of UX: Using Psychology to Design Better Products and Services (Jon Yablonski)
● Book: UX for Beginners: A Crash Course in 100 Short Lessons (Joel Marsh)

Brand and Culture
A company’s brand is more than its name, logo, and marketing collateral. It’s the collection of images and perceptions people have about the company and its products or services. Strong brands evoke emotional responses and create loyalty to the product over time.

Consider the differences between an Evian and Voss water. They are in perceptible ways pretty much the same product yet they attract different groups of consumers. Each has a recognizable identity and unique brand promise that influence specific customer segments. Brand is intertwined with company culture, because a brand—and the products and services that follow it—is created, implemented, or supported by employees. When employees aren’t rallied around the company’s mission, vision, values, and brand, their behavior decays the culture that tries to support the product or service. Thus, it limits the company’s ability to reach its goals.

Peter Drucker, management consultant, is quoted as saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The same is true for brands. Check out these two texts for building brands and cultures that support products, services, and ultimately the performance of your people.

● Book: Culture Built My Brand (Mark Miller & Ted Vaughn)
● Book: Clued In: How to Keep Customers Coming Back Again and Again (Lewis Carbone)

Implementation Science
The previous three disciplines are concerned with establishing an environment that nurtures employee performance to serve a specific population through products or services. Implementation science takes a holistic, or systems, approach to the uptake of a practice or intervention and the activities that sustain it over time. Primarily used in healthcare and education, where interventions quickly get washed out by changes in policy, funding, and leadership, implementation science looks at all the angles of how implementation occurs. Of the myriad implementation science frameworks and methods available, one of the clearest emerges from the Active Implementation Research Network. AIRN advocates for the use of six frameworks to guide the dissemination, implementation, and sustainability of a practice or intervention. Learn more through their open-source resources:

● Active Implementation Research Network: Frameworks and practices
● National Implementation Research Network: Active Implementation Hub

Returning to the PDC
All of this might seem like a divergence from the initial issue—overusing the Performance Diagnostic Checklist—but it’s at the heart. Instead of narrowly observing performance problems, checking off the antecedents and consequences that contribute to it, and finding a solution, spend more time understanding the broader context of the organization. Ask yourself and others in the organization these questions:

● Who are the internal and external customers we serve?
● What problems do we solve for people?
● Is the product we make or service we provide optimized for humans?
● If we had a product or service that customers were loyal to (they love it!), how would we create that loyalty?
● Does our company have the ingredients to make for a successful culture of high performance and happy people?
● How do we tackle long-term sustainability of what we do in the organization and with our customers?

You can ask these questions about internal customers (e.g., behavior technicians receiving the service of leaders) and external ones (e.g., clients receiving ABA services). In either case, performance issues will arise. The choice is whether to intervene directly on that performance or evaluate it against the broader organization: what it does and how it does it. Starting with tactics derived from human-centered and user experience design, brand, and culture, and implementation science gives context to performance, performance problems, and the results of those performances.

Once those are in place, then refer to your PDC to tell you someone needs performance feedback or that a task’s effort should be reduced. In other words, put the PDC down, step away, and come back to it as one of several tools in your behavioral and environmental engineering toolkit.